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Stokely: A Life

Posted on May 23, 2014

Image by Basic Civitas Books

By Paul Von Blum

To see long excerpts from “Stokely: A Life” at Google Books, click here.

“Stokely: A Life”
A book by Peniel E. Joseph

Throughout the history of the United States, strong African-American men have played dramatic roles in pursuing freedom, dignity, justice and full equality for their people. Many have paid horrific prices, including social ostracism, governmental persecution, media vilification, imprisonment, and the loss of their reputations and even their lives for their relentless and militant commitment to political and moral integrity. Some have become honorable historical icons, serving as authentic role models for all oppressed peoples. Among many others, this select category includes Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, W.E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Often—and disconcertingly—missing from this list is Stokely Carmichael, one of the premier civil rights/black power figures of the mid to late 20th century. Peniel Joseph, one of the leading historians of the civil rights and black power movements, puts it bluntly in his new biography, “Stokely: A Life”: “Although today largely forgotten, Stokely Carmichael remains one of the protean figures of the twentieth century: a revolutionary who passionately believed in self defense and armed rebellion even as he revered the nation’s greatest practitioner of nonviolence; a gifted intellectual who dealt in emotions as well as words and ideas; and an activist whose radical political vision remained anchored by a deep sense of history.”

This exceptionally researched and engagingly written book is a comprehensive account of Carmichael’s multifaceted and controversial life as a black and Pan-African activist. The author traces the life of the Trinidad-born Carmichael from his birth in 1941 to his premature death at 57 in Guinea, where he fully implemented his personal and political identity as an African. Professor Joseph details every feature of Carmichael’s political consciousness, which began after his arrival in New York and during his studies at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. 

A highlight of his early political awakening was his friendship with members of the New York left-wing culture, including many young Jewish intellectuals. Like many of his generation, he was reminded of the horrors of racism when he learned of the savage murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. Carmichael was 14—the same age as Till—and this event had a huge impact on him. He also found the vibrant tradition of black radicalism, especially in the figure of Bayard Rustin, whose nonviolent perspective and socialist philosophy appealed to his early idealism. Carmichael idolized Paul Robeson, whose militancy and defiant resistance to governmental persecution informed his later radical vision and support of progressive domestic and international causes.

Carmichael commenced his life of political engagement during his studies at Howard University. Galvanized by the historic sit-in at the segregated lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960, by four African-American students in Greensboro, N.C., and the ensuing civil rights protests throughout the South, he began the political journey that would consume his entire life. This led him to participate in the early freedom rides, landing him in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary—the first of many arrests throughout his career of agitation. 

The book chronicles Carmichael’s emergence as a full fledged civil rights organizer in the Mississippi Delta, where his personality resonated powerfully with the local black populace. One of the key themes of the book reveals the Stokely that the media typically ignored: Rural African-Americans were impressed and inspired by his intelligence, humor and extraordinary capacity to relate, at deep personal levels, with men, women and children. 

As Joseph reveals, being an organizer was Carmichael’s essential personal identity throughout his life. This led to his longtime work and leadership with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and to his efforts in Lowndes County, Ala., where he helped shape the original Black Panther Party. His personal charisma and his strong oratory skills complemented his organizational abilities, propelling him to national visibility at a young age. 

The Mississippi Meredith March in 1966, after the shooting of James Meredith, marked the emergence of Carmichael as a national civil rights leader and the shift of that leadership to a new and younger generation. As Joseph suggests, it made him the most important black radical in America since Malcolm X. Equally important, that iconic march enabled him to take a place alongside Martin Luther King Jr. as a national black leader and spokesperson. On June 16, 1966, Carmichael changed the course and direction of the civil rights movement when he called on black people to start demanding “Black Power.”

That call divided Carmichael (and SNCC) from the mainstream civil rights groups and leaders, including King, who was uncomfortable with the Black Power slogan. Most white Americans were horrified by this militant turn. And more conservative black leaders like the Urban League’s Whitney Young and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins denounced Carmichael, preferring compromise and accommodation with national commercial and political leaders to radical rhetoric and militant street action. Wilkins, absurdly, even characterized Black Power as racism in reverse, despite the strong evidence that Carmichael never embraced racial separatism (though there was some ambiguity about his attitude toward Jews) even during the height of his Black Power days.

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